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December 27, 2020 — 1st Sunday of Christmas

Galatians 4:4-7
Christmas 1B

The year 2020 has been a chaotic one by any measure!

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And as we have grappled with formidable crises posed by a global pandemic and by racial and political reckonings, something important has slipped through the cracks: 545 children separated from their parents at our southern borderhave not been reunited. During 2017-2018, refugees from Central America, falsely caricatured and stigmatized as lawless criminals, faced a new punitive measure designed to discourage immigration as the U.S. government began separating young children from their parents. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, rightly and roundly condemned this heartless policy. And now the parents of 545 of those children cannot be found, for any number of reasons. Some have been deported back to their countries of origin or are in hiding out of fear for their lives that led them to seek refuge here in the first place. In some cases, officials on the ground do not have full names and addresses of the parents — or they have the wrong names and addresses. Whatever the reason, the outcome is that 545 children have been orphaned and largely forgotten. One can only imagine what Christmas must have been like for them— or for the parents without access to their children or assurance of their welfare. The trauma of separation, dislocation and stigmatization will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

This is worth bearing in mind as we come before Paul’s letter to the Galatians on the 1st Sunday of Christmas, for it is addressed to an early church all too familiar with such trauma. Conquest, stigmatization and dislocation were means by which the Roman Empire often managed its colonies, and Galatians speaks powerfully to a shamed and conquered people. In her brilliant new book on this epistle, “Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished,” Brigitte Kahl contends that the “other gospel” Paul confronts in this letter (Galatians 1:6-7) is not Jewish-Christian perversion of the gospel by “works righteousness” (as traditionally supposed), but rather Caesar’s gospel — Caesar’s law-and-order religion that subjugated and stigmatized conquered peoples, especially the Galatians or Gauls, who were among the historic enemies of Rome. Roman law-and-order religion enforced a social hierarchy with the Romans on top and “barbarians” (like the Galatians/Gauls) near the bottom. Indeed, Kahl demonstrates that inscriptions of domination were everywhere and practically part of the air that people breathed — in statuary, legal practices, the imperial cult and even Rome’s savage entertainment industry, which featured staged games in which gladiators (slaves or captives) fought to the death with other gladiators, wild animals or condemned criminals. All such things served as daily reminders of who was in charge and were part of what Paul refers to, and objects to, pointedly as an “other gospel.”

Amidst this culture of conquest and domination, Paul makes a remarkable baptismal affirmation: “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This affirmation was radical and revolutionary, overturning entrenched hierarchies of power and privilege, which was evidently Paul’s intent. As Kahl puts it, for Paul, the empire’s model of “divide and rule” was washed away in the waters of baptism. In Paul’s view, if we have caught a glimpse of God’s character in the crucified and risen Christ, then we are compelled to create communities that manifest the new creation in which all such distinctions are overcome and transformed. This means radical movement of self to other in which we become the mystical body of Christ in baptism. The opposition of “us versus them” is drowned, washed away in baptism. Indeed, embodiment of this reality constitutes the church’s public witness in the world.

Thus in the lectionary text from Galatians 4:4-7, when Paul speaks of those who were “born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law,” he is speaking of redemption and liberation of Galatians/Gauls subject to Rome as a shamed and conquered people, so that they might be freed from enslavement and “receive adoption as children.” Indeed, Paul concludes, you are no longer enslaved “but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” These words of inclusion bear witness to a reality the church embodies as the beachhead of new creation — a community in which we are restored in the image of God and become one with others rather than set against others.

On the 1st Sunday of Christmas, Paul’s words to the Galatians convey profoundly good news for people around the globe who find themselves enslaved by insular politics, poverty, racialized stereotypes and other forms of subjugation.The immigrant children and their parents mentioned above are surely among them – people separated from each other due to xenophobic disparagement – as are others in our midst: black and brown children whose lives are diminished byracist policies that impoverish their neighborhoods and schools, and “Dreamers,” children of immigrants who have grown up in the U.S. but are now threatened with deportation. And to the extent that any of us are enslaved to a colonial “us vs. them,” mindset, Paul’s words are directed to us too, reminding us of the promise we received at baptism — the promise that all the polarities and enmities that divide the human family have been washed away as we are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:19-20). All are adopted, named and claimed as children of God’s covenant with the earth and, as such, called to live in mutuality and solidarity with one another — so that thefears of others are our own fears, their diminishments are our diminishments, their forsakenness is our forsakenness, their children are our children. God is at work in the midst of such solidarity, bringing justice, reconciliation, reparation and homecoming — resurrection life!

This week:

  1. Who would you identify as stigmatized persons in your community? How does the life of your congregation intersect with theirs?
  2. How is the “us vs. them” mentality manifest in your community? What would it mean for you and for the life of your congregation to think of baptism as a sacrament that washes away this kind of thinking?
  3. What might it mean to be the mystical body of Christ in relation to the marginalized in your church or community?
  4. What does Paul’s notion of our “adoption” as God’s own children mean to you?
  5. Are there immigrant families in your community? What would it mean for you to live in solidarity with them? What might that look like?
  6. How has the plight of 545 children separated from their parents weighed on your mind and heart and life of faith?

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